In the first pages of Knots, Cambara, the novel's impulsive, determined, Westernized protagonist – who also happens to be over six feet tall and gorgeous – strolls the streets of her childhood home with a close kinsman. But there's nothing sentimental or tender about this particular reunion.
On the contrary, the city to which Cambara has returned is Mogadishu (here spelled Mogadiscio) and after years of civil war, the Somalian capital – seen here in the fierce blaze of the afternoon sun – is a welter of roads in disrepair, houses pocked with bullet marks, and vandalized, abandoned buildings. Roaming the city streets are bands of "sarong- and flip-flop-wearing youths armed with AK-47s."
Cambara's relative, Zaak, is not exactly a sight for sore eyes, either. Undone by the twin evils of despair and an addiction to qaat (a narcotic leaf chewed by some Somalis), Zaak's teeth and breath are foul. To a repulsed Cambara, he's "a hopeless man in a ruined city."
"Knots" is the 10th novel of acclaimed Somali author Nuruddin Farah, who has vowed "to keep my country alive by writing about it."
Cambara, Farah's protagonist, has a similar goal. She's left her comfortable (albeit unhappy) home in Canada, mourning a failed marriage and the death of her young son. With little left to lose, Cambara dons a custom-made caftan – armed with a knife concealed in a secret inner pocket – and sets off on what her mother calls "a plan as flawed as a suicide note" to reappropriate a family villa illegally occupied by a warlord.
There's no particular logic to this – Cambara's family live comfortably in Toronto and the property's long been forgotten – but Cambara seems to feel that if she can re-establish even a tiny pocket of order in Mogadishu then perhaps her son will not have died in vain.
Her ultimate goal of setting up a puppet theater in the reclaimed villa (her son took an interest in puppets) is incongruous at best, but the determination with which Cambara pushes toward normalcy and order drives the plot forward and energizes the novel with a kind of joyous, cock-eyed hope.
Nuruddin gained international attention with the 1970 publication of "From a Crooked Rib" about a Somali woman fleeing an arranged marriage. Ever since, the struggles of his country – and particularly of its women – have been his topic.
His earlier novel "Link" is intended, with "Knots," to make up the first parts of a trilogy. Several characters overlap, most notably Bile, who becomes a love interest for Cambara (in one of the least convincing developments of the story).
Nuruddin, who today lives in South Africa, writes in English even though it is not his first language. (He speaks five, claiming Somali as his native tongue.) The result is a uniquely textured prose style.
In places, the language in "Knots" is sharply descriptive. ("Her voice, even if raised, remain[ed] soft in the peripheries and hard at the center like calluses rasping on sandpaper.") Elsewhere it exudes a slightly clumsy type of charm. ("Arda segued into a song, in which the word 'love' chimed not with stars shining most brightly but with the notion 'ruse.')
Occasionally, however, Nuruddin's attempts at American colloquialisms are just plain jarring. ("She finds it hard to picture ever having had the hots for him.")
"Knots" has its awkward moments. And Western readers may find it hard to accept some plot twists, including the ease with which Cambara, mourning her own son, picks up a couple of substitutes. ("He is no one's son," she is told of a 10-year-old boy she decides to take home.)
But that is also part of the story's richness. It sends non-Somali readers to a place and set of circumstances unimaginable elsewhere in the world. And yet, somehow (as in a scene in which gun- slinging boy warriors are unnerved when asked to kill a chicken for lunch), Nuruddin reduces his country's trauma to a scale we can almost grasp. "One may be lulled into believing that everything is normal," Cambara thinks.
It's not, of course. But such a world does really exist, and the fact that Nuruddin allows us to experience this – even glancingly – is an achievement in itself.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe